Iowa Sustainable Ag Award Goes To Kirschenmann

Iowa Sustainable Ag Award Goes To Kirschenmann

Fred Kirschenmann, well-known sustainable ag leader and former head of the Leopold Center at ISU, is honored with the 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award.

Practical Farmers of Iowa has bestowed its 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award to farmer Fred Kirschenmann—a longtime national and international leader in sustainable agriculture and a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Frederick L. Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture at Pocantico Hills, New York.

PFI grants this award annually to those who have excelled in demonstrating sustainable agriculture and have been generous in sharing what they have learned with others, according to PFI president Tim Landgraf. "It is a difficult decision every year. We spend a good deal of time thinking it through because there is always a long list of worthy individuals who are strong supporters of sustainable agriculture in Iowa," Landgraf says. "I'm excited and pleased to recognize Fred with our Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award for the work he has done here in Iowa and nationwide. He has dedicated a lifetime to educating others and getting others to think about the future of food production and its effects on our health and our environment."

The award was presented to Kirschenmann at Practical Farmers of Iowa's 2012 Annual Conference in Ames, Iowa, on January 13, 2012.

Kirschenmann has spent a lifetime educating others about sustainable ag

Kirschenmann oversees the management of his family's 2,600-acre, certified-organic farm, where he grew up in south-central North Dakota. "I loved being outdoors and driving the tractor," he recalls. "My father always insisted on me getting as much education as I could so there was never any question whether I'd go to college; otherwise, I'd probably have stayed on the farm."

Kirschenmann holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago and has written extensively about ethics and agriculture. He was a teacher and administrator for several years before returning, in 1976, to North Dakota to farm. "My father instilled in me a deep respect for the land. The question he always asked when making a farming decision or considering a new practice was, 'But is this good for the soil?'" By 1980, the farm had been certified organic, one of the early operations to make the transition. Today, the farm is a 2,600-acre, certified-organic farm, including a natural prairie livestock grazing system that combines a nine-crop rotation of cereal grains, forages and green manure.

"In 1976, when I started all this, I didn't even know there was an organic market. After discovering it, virtually all our products went to Europe," says Kirschenmann. The demand for organic products has grown and is now much closer to home. "In the early days, it never occurred to us that we would have to think about climate change and skyrocketing fossil fuel costs. We figured we could just tweak the current system—lower inputs, reduce pollutants—now we realize we need to completely overhaul the industrial model to make it resilient enough to survive the challenges we will be facing in the future."

Practical, on-farm experiences were filled with successes as well as failures

Through his efforts to educate others, the seeds of stewardship planted by his father took root and Kirschenmann's innovative ideas about agriculture eventually were cast to a wider audience than life on the farm alone could have provided. Kirschenmann's practical, on-farm experiences were filled with successes and failures as he pioneered new practices and sought guidance wherever he could find it. "I started getting acquainted with the sustainable ag community and got connected with ISU [Iowa State University] and the Leopold Center, and that's when I heard about Practical Farmers of Iowa."

Kirschenmann has been an active member of PFI  since 1987 when he was asked to speak at the organization's second annual conference. "On-farm research is critical to farmers' success and that's what Practical Farmers is known for. Very few organizations are doing this sort of thing," he says. "But, in doing so, PFI is supporting one of the most important resources that we are in danger of losing—farmers. The social and intellectual capital that this group generates will be its most important contribution to farmers of the future."

He was director of the Leopold Center from July 2000 to November 2005

Kirschenmann was named director of the Leopold Center from July 2000 to November 2005, and is currently a charter member of the Whiterock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that manages a 5,000-acre conservation area in west-central Iowa. He has also held numerous appointments, including the USDA's National Organic Standards Board and the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

Honored recently as a visionary and for his lifetime of leadership in sustainable food and farming systems, Kirschenmann is among 10 food pioneers, including First Lady Michelle Obama, to receive the inaugural Leadership Award from the James Beard Foundation. In addition, he served as a key advisor for a new documentary that is due to be released this spring called, "Symphony of the Soil," by Deborah Koons Garcia, which focuses on what's happening to the land and changes that need to be made to return our soil to health.

What's happening to the land? What changes do we need to make?

"We are looking at crude oil reaching $300 per barrel and facing weather challenges unseen in my lifetime." Kirschenmann says. "It's time to shift the vision for the future from an industrial farm model that focuses on maximum efficient production for short-term economic returns, because there is nothing in that model that addresses sustainability, and look instead at an 'agroecological' model, which recognizes the importance of long-term resilience. By employing ecological principals, farming will emphasize self-renewing and self-regulating systems for maximum long-term economic returns, based on nature's wisdom."

Founded in 1985, PFI is an open, supportive and diverse organization of farmers and friends of farmers, advancing profitable, ecologically sound and community-enhancing approaches to agriculture through farmer-to-farmer networking, farmer-led investigation and information sharing. Farmers in our network produce corn, soybeans, beef cattle, hay, fruits and vegetables, and more. For additional information, call 515.232.5661 or visit

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